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Return of the Drug Sniffing Dachshunds

And then it was suddenly 4 in the morning and we were hustling to get all our things together, take down the laundry line, pack up our lives and go to Mongolia.

Our time in Siberia felt like it had gone by in a flash, and I would be lying if I told you we didn’t find it difficult to place our excitement about Mongolia ahead of our fondness for Siberia.

It was gently raining on us as we wheeled through the still darkened streets of Ulan Ude towards the main train station. If this had been Krasnoyarsk, of course, it would have already been light, so far north is that city. When we got to the train station, we discovered that we had made an error in assessing the time of the train, miscalculating the change in time zones between here and Moscow (we’d been warned against this by that fine e-ticket lady in Novosibirsk). Luckily, we had made the error in our favor, so we had only to wait around for an extra hour so, letting time catch up to us.

It didn’t even take a full hour, though, for the train arrived 40 minutes before its schedule departure time, which gave us plenty of buffer to spend climbing aboard with all our stuff and smashing our way into our cabin. Inside we found two very friendly and patient Dutch ladies who were sleeping. They were very forgiving when we not only woke them up, but executed a very boisterous reshuffling of all the luggage in the entire compartment (including theirs) in order to make our cycles fit.

There are a few reasons why fitting the cycles on this train was difficult. The first is that this was a trans-Mongolian car, rather than a trans-Siberian car. The main difference between the two sets of rolling stock are that the trans-Mongolian cars are all Chinese made… This means less luggage space, and smaller bunks. On top of that, the train to Ulaanbaatar has no Platzcart class, so we had to deal with the more expensive and less luxurious “Kupe” class.

Regardless, we managed to get all our things into the train car, Storing my bike under one of our bunks, and Scott’s underneath the bunk of a nearby friendly gentleman.

Meanwhile Buryatya slowly transitioned into steppe outside the windows, opening up into wide and endless grassy fields, flanked by kind looking mountains. Not long into the ride, the train stopped at the Russian border town nestled up to Mongolia. It was a sleepy little Siberian village, and we were quite shocked to learn that the train had every intention of spending the next five hours here. We assumed that meant we needed to go file through some kind of customs processing, but after walking around for some time we found that too was not until after the 5 hours of waiting. It seemed we were doomed to wait here so that the train could be reconsolidated from cars arriving from all over Russia, bound for Ulaanbaatar, many of which, I believe were full of not people, but freight.

We had learned a few interesting things about this train already, apart from the fact that it featured Chinese rolling stock. It was also populated almost completely with foreigners.  We could barely remember how to socialize in English. Were the Russians not interested in visiting Mongolia? Or do they take a different train? I can’t be sure, though we invite speculation in the comments. One thing we can be sure of, however, is that the Mongolian railways symbol is fantastic.

The wait in the railroad station in Zamin Ud turned out to be even longer than expected, so we had plenty of time to wander around looking at the train loads of tanks that were heading down into Mongolia,

and to speculate as to what was in all the rusting chemical cars, especially the leaky ones.

Just like the other cars we’d ridden in Russia, ours on the Trans-Mongolian had a fantastic wood burning samovar, which provided the people with hot water, even throughout the entirety of the wait to consolidate the train.

And then it was finally time to go. We were all ordered to go back to our bunks, and the first wave of Russian officials bordered the train with more of those adorable drug-sniffing Dachshunds that we’d seen in the Novosibirsk airport, followed by wave two: a woman who’s only job seemed to be to wander through the car shouting at everyone to get out of their rooms, while new inspectors, with bigger and meaner looking dogs headed in to investigate, then to shout at everyone to get back in to the next “kupe” could be assessed.  She would approach each kupe, announcing “Please leave your room.”  As European the european tourists simultaneously paused in releif of her politeness and the directness of the request, she quickly followed it up with a curt, “Leave now.”  And so they left.

Next came the actual border police, who demanded our passports and immigration cards, taking them one by one, and determining whether or not our faces matched the documents and placing them into a very fetching double headed eagle emblazoned leather satchel that I would love to one day own, and disappearing with the documents. We then waited on the train for an hour and a half, unable to leave, while the passports were inspected, detected, and stamped.

Our documents arrived back in good shape though, and the train rumbled on towards Mongolia.

Once in Mongolia, we experienced essentially a parallel operation. It was slightly less heavily staffed, and there was only one, rather beat up looking dog, but they same basic algorithm.

It was time, after long last, to switch back to our “sun” passports, the one’s we’d last used way back when we left the UAE. We needed to enter Mongolia on these, since they contained our Chinese visas. At first the woman was skeptical.  “Where is your Russian Visa!” she demanded “Show it to me!” the librarian style silver chains that connected her glassed to her head jangling audibly.

I sheepishly produced the “moon” passport, not knowing if I was somehow breaking the law, and showed her the visa. She scrutinized it for a while as I blabbered on trying to explain that we needed to enter Mongolia on the passport that she had, and why we might legitimately have two passports to begin with. Finally with a snort and a whinny, she gave the “moon” book back to me and headed on down the car.

Great Success!

From there we continued to roll on towards Ulaanbaatar, through a Mongolia which I found to be much greener than I had ever suspected. Mongolia was downright lush in some parts.

While the train rumbled on, the Dutch women were teaching Scott some words in their mother tongue, in between rounds of insane Dutch scrabble (J’s are worth very few points). Meanwhile, I wandered off to the end of the train and played the ukulele, longing for a little more Siberia.

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